A New Prototype

For the last month I’ve been working on both a prototype and updating my methods for making modular instruments, in an attempt to streamline the process.

When building a modular instrument, the production process should be such that every neck and body should fit each other – that way the customer can choose from any number of combinations (and I can keep a few different bodies and necks in stock). So for example, I could have a few bodies made of Alder, sealed and ready for painting, and a few neck blocks (necks part finished with a different fretboard materials, ready for hand shaping to taste). This way, the customer gets a shorter turnaround, but still gets a guitar built to the general design, but with a neck shaped to their own hand, with whatever frets they want, whatever fret markers they want, whatever colour they want. But I’m still slightly ahead of the game. I can even make special orders from exotic woods, but having accurate templating will still make the process quicker.

When you’re making guitars, or any other product, the price that you need to charge the customer relies on two things: Raw Materials costs, and productivity. In guitar making, I have absolutely no control over the cost of parts – there simply aren’t any deals to be had, the price is the price and I’m stuck with that. But what I can do is raise productivity, and therefore reduce prices to the customer. This is where I have to compete against those companies who can cut by machine. I still have to do all my cutting by hand, CNC is out of my reach, and just not my bag. By grouping actions of a similar nature, the fact that I don’t have a lot of workshop space can be made less of a disadvantage. Making bodies for a few days, then necks, then scratchplates.

That doesn’t mean that I want to stop making bespoke instruments, but that if I know I can diversify a little, I can invest more into the workshop – and hopefully reach the next necessary step – rebuilding the bloody thing to keep out the damp, cold and rodents!

The new model:

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The aim was to create a new and unique shape, but one that would support a huge number of possible configurations for pickups, switching and hardware. Also, I set myself the task of making a guitar that would stand up against the amp without the risk of falling over – it had to have two points of contact with the ground.

The prototype had to be one that was a real utility instrument, so I went for a two humbucker guitar, with coil taps and a tremolo. Because I’m going to be playing it, the tremolo only goes one way, something achieved by cutting the neck pocket a few millimetres deeper than the design would normally require.

The basic design revolves around the 25 1/2″ scale length. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that because of the raised tension in this longer scale, the range of tones available is slightly wider. Listen to the neck pickup on a strat – it’s not the materials alone that allow that ‘chime’ and attack – the tension changes the way that the string reacts. Of course, top end can always be rolled away with the tone pot. Putting a single coil in a 24 3/4″ scale guitar rarely gives  a similar effect in terms of tone, there is a noticeable lack of that spank and attack. In this case I originally started with a piece of Ebony for the neck, but it had a fault in it and I had to scrap it, hence the maple. However, the extra attack that seems to generate has made the guitar even more reactive, especially for the neck pickup.

The other thing that really changes massively in the tighter string is he reaction to both pinch and natural harmonics. For me, in the 25 1/5″ scale they are often more prominent and certainly pick harmonics seem easier to coax out of the guitar. Note that many of the late 80’s shredders used Strat length guitars. Lastly, the increased tension I think, aids tremolo stability – more string tension balanced by more spring tension. All together there is more force seating the block against the pins.

The wood used for this was leftovers. The piece of Tulip wood that was used for the body was brought in as a long plank, but the end was a bit green so I left it to one side – so that was cut and glued into a blank. The maple for the neck was a leftover that had warped slightly, so I had put it to one side earlier this year, but managed to plane it straight enough to use. The fretboard was was the last piece of a block I’d already made two necks from, both of which had subsequently warped and had to be binned, but for a fretboard was still fine.

I didn’t worry too much about the colour scheme, on the basis that I had a large piece of black scratchplate – so the body had to work with that. White seemed the obvious choice, so a spray can was purchased.

The neck shape is a little faster than I would normally design for myself, it’s a bit flatter too. When I first set it up and plugged it into an amp, I didn’t like the action because it was too low!

Lastly, the pickups. I’m a massive fan of the Bare Knuckles Pickups – my go to has always been the Mules. However, for prototyping they are a reassuringly expensive. So as an experiment I ordered a set of ‘Rolling Mill’ pickups from Iron Gear. Are they as good as the Mules? For me, no not really. But at three times the price are the Mules three times as good, absolutely not? The difference is subtle, partly in the smoothness of the bottom end of the pickup. But there’s no doubt that what Iron gear have done is create a pickup that at this price point I haven’t seen matched. They stand up against pretty much any of the non boutique brands that I’ve used here for replacement work, and destroy anything else I’ve heard that still resides in the budget market.

The prototype took about a month to make, from the templates to the finished guitar, which is pretty quick for me. I did a lot of re-tooling, especially in terms of the router and table. Whatever happens that will be of benefit later. In design terms, it’s certainly a departure from the more traditional shapes that I have tended towards, let me know what you think of it. I’m not sure whether it will prove popular, but it’s certainly growing on me!

PS: It doesn’t have a name yet. I think it’s going to need one.

PPS – As an alternative, I could also make a ‘custom’ model using exotic woods and load the guitar from the back, using the same basic shape and neck design – no plastic at all.

Squier Jazz: On the workbench

I get a a great number of ‘budget’ guitars across the workbench in the course of a year, it has becomes a much more substantial part of my workload in recent times. Part of this is because there has been a glut of them on the market that are actually quite playable (rather then the junk that I was subjected to as a kid), so the shops are stocking more of them. The other (and probably the larger part) is that the economy is still in the toilet, and doesn’t look  like it’s going to climb out for many years to come.

This has left the working musician often looking to less prestigious names to adorn their gigging headstocks. So as they come into the workshop, I’ll take a good look at them and try to give a fair rundown of their strengths and weaknesses.

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The instrument on the bench this morning is a Squire Jazz Bass. It’s fairly new, a 2014 build from the serial number. Black, with a black scratchplate and the maple neck reminiscent of the 1970’s Fender. The owner is reporting the action a little high for his taste, but that’s not the issue that strikes me first. It’s the fret job. Its not uneven along its length – its not buzzing out. I can lower the strings significantly without choking. No, its the ends that seems to me to be at issue. It makes the bass feel harsh on the hands, especially on the treble side when fretting the low strings, your hand can’t avoid the sharpness and very shallow pitch of the fret ends.

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So my first job was to tilt the fret ends in with the end file, a large and course file that is run along the length of the fret ends and takes equally from them to create an even profile.

Each fret end then needs to be shaped with the fine file and then the frets are polished. The amount of difference this makes to the bass is very significant. Suddenly this feels a much more expensive instrument, it’s smooth and fast and the action now lowered is very smooth.

The bass has been fitted with a heavy string set, but its not affecting the neck setup at all because the owner has been very smart about his tensions. This is a trick I’ve been advising players on for many years – how to keep your bass straight when you tune down. Its all about string tensions. DiAddario publish a string chart(pdf), where string weights are compared through both note and string tension. The trick is to decide what tension you like at standard tuning for feel and then for down tuning to choose a string set that as closely as possible matches that tension. That is what the owner had done here. This has left me a minimal amount of work to do on the neck tension itself, because it has not been over tensioned. It also means that you don’t get the effect of floppy strings bouncing off of every fret because they’re too light.

On plugging it in post setup, I’m pleasantly surprised by the tone of the beast. Its not the most aggressive sounding Jazz bass I’ve ever heard, but even at Drop C (C,G,C,F) it has a pleasingly articulate tone. It’s not over boomy either, the bottom string is not overbearing, and its fairly even across the fretboard.

The neck is fast and smooth, the finish is good and now that the fret ends are dealt with it would be hard to tell the difference between this and for example a Mexican Fender. The body is a little light for  my liking, which makes it a touch head heavy, but for the player who likes a fairly lightweight bass that won’t be a handicap. It sustains well all the same, and intonates without too much messing about.

When you consider the price that these are being offered for – (I think this is probably the Squier 77 vintage modified model), you just can’t argue against them on sheer bang for the buck. Yes, to a degree you get what you pay for, and you’ll hear reviews on the web and on youtube of Asian built guitars that tell you where they save their money – mainly on the hardware and pickups. (Phillip McKnight has a good stab at that here in video format).  But in the bass market, while this matters, it matter less. So long as the pickups have a good range and the tuners stay in tune, you can get a great instrument for absolutely peanuts here. Some things will inevitably wear out quicker than their USA counterparts – mainly the potentiometers (volume and tone controls) and the Jack socket for example. But that’s not going to cost you the hundreds of pounds you’ve saved over the Mexican or US equivalent.

The only thing that puts me off this slightly is the physical lightness of it as an instrument – those fret ends are nothing that any local luthier can’t deal with as part of a setup. It just leaves it with a balance that doesn’t suit me particularly. I like my basses a little heavier so that their balance is very much a product of their body mass. But most younger players actually don’t like a heavy instrument at all, and I’m 5’11” and far from waif like – and this is advertised as a Punk players bass – they didn’t exactly have me in mind!

So here’s the crunch – there are a lot of these kinds of instruments on the market. What you aren’t going to get from an Indonesian built guitar manufacturer is the quality control levels you would get from the USA Fender plant. That’s not to say that they are going to churn out trash guitars, but they are going to let go some things that the USA workshop would reject – it’s a cost issue.

Therefore the message is simple – don’t mail order, buy in person. Play the bass. If it’s fretting out all over the place, leave it on the shelf. If it sounds good, don’t worry about a few sharp fret ends – even if you have to pay a luthier £35 to set the bass up and file the fret ends, you’ve still got a good deal if the bass is generally sound and you like it. There is one hidden problem on far some far eastern guitars: The Truss Rod!

The most common big fault I find on them is that the truss rods don’t support the neck. So unless the neck is fairly straight in the shop, walk away. It proves that the shop is not one to be buying from – would you sell your car with a flat tire and cigarette ash all over the seat covers? If they haven’t set the instrument up then they are in one of two positions – either the don’t care enough or they don’t have the technical skills. If it’s either of those, you have to consider whether you want to shop there. If I had a shop, nothing would go on the wall until it was at least given a polish and a setup. Fret ends are a different order of magnitude, it requires a little more tooling and experience – but if you can’t get the neck straight, the guitar intonated and the strings at a playable level, and you’re a retailer, it’s time to get a different job!

So, ready to pack this one back in the case and back to its owner. It’s a good bass, it’s more than just playable, it’s quick and it has a pleasing tone. It’s well finished, the hardware works well, and the electronics are plenty good enough to gig. At the price these go for, that’s a lot of bass.